A number of people wrote in late last year to ask what I thought of the NEA report on declining literacy, To Read Or Not To Read, in the light of my arguments in Everything Bad Is Good For You. I actually jotted down some pretty extensive notes about it, either for a blog post or an op-ed, but it was right before Christmas, and so they ended up sitting on my hard drive. But the other day, the Guardian asked me if I had anything to say about the issue, so I went back and wrote up this little essay that's running today in the Guardian. Here's a quick taste of it:
The NEA makes a convincing case that both kids and adults are reading fewer books. "Non-required" reading - ie, picking up a book for the fun of it - is down 7% since 1992 for all adults, and 12% for 18-24 year olds.
The subtitle of the NEA report - A Question Of National Consequence - would lead you believe this dramatic drop must have had done significant damage to our reading proficiencies as a society. And indeed, NEA chair Dana Giola states boldly in his introduction: "The story the data tell is simple, consistent and alarming." But then the data turns out to be complex, inconsistent and not really that alarming at all. As Giola puts it, in the very next sentence: "Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years."
What was that again? There's measurable progress in two of the three age groups reviewed? Actually, it's more than just measurable: if you look at the charts, the single biggest change - either positive or negative - is the spike upwards in reading abilities among nine-year-olds, which jumped seven points from 1999.
But at least there must be an "alarming" drop in reading skills among those 17-year-olds to justify this big report. And there it is: the teenagers are down five points from 1988. But wait, this is all on a scale of 0-500. If you scored it on a standard 100-point exam scale, it's the equivalent of dropping a single point. Not exactly cause for national alarm.